Meditation: My Experience + How to Start
Five years ago, I had no interest in meditation. It sounded like a waste of time that I wasn’t even capable of achieving anyways. I knew my brain was too busy to “not think” for 2 minutes, let alone 20 or more.
Today, it’s a grounding force in my life. And since I share videos of myself meditating on Instagram, I regularly receive questions about my dedicated daily meditation practice. I am by no means a meditation expert, but I am more than happy to share my experience.
For those of you who think you’re just not cut out for it, I hear you. Maybe you’ve already tried and it “just didn’t work for you.” I believe you. But I also believe that, like me, you are much more capable of meditation than you think. And that it is not only possible for you, but truly important. Meditation is most difficult for those who need it the most.
I was (and still am) one of those people. I have the “monkey mind” as they call it, which basically gets consumed in thought super easily. It’s a big part of why I have always had trouble falling asleep, and why I am not the world’s safest driver. If you deal with anxiety, are often indecisive, or tend to overthink things, hi. I feel you.
And I promise, meditation does not have to be as hard or intense as you think. The only way that you can be “bad” at meditation is by not trying at all or by judging yourself when you do.
So, let’s jump in.
Meditation: What’s the Point?
Let’s start by making sure you have an understanding of the goal of meditation. The goal of meditation is not to sit in utter bliss with no thoughts. Maybe that happens sometimes, after years of practice. But especially when you are first beginning your meditation practice, looking for that type of experience is asking to feel like you’ve failed.
The goal for me (and what I would recommend for others) is to become more aware of what we are thinking and feeling, and to practice letting go of thoughts and redirecting the attention elsewhere.
If you’ve ever played a sport, meditation is like the drills you do at practice. You don’t do drills to get better at drills; you do drills so that when it comes to game time, you perform well.
With meditation, you are practicing the skill of being aware of your thoughts and being able to decide where you want your attention to go. Then in “real life,” when you start to feel stressed or anxious (or whatever other thoughts are not serving you), you can notice that you are getting caught up in these thoughts and then choose to let them go and instead focus your attention on something else.
Rather than being a victim to your brain’s roving thoughts, you take back your authority to say “no thanks” and move on from thoughts that you know are holding you back or causing you distress. Your awareness empowers you.
Meditation, at its simplest, is this: Sitting and focusing your attention on the breath: in and out, in and out, over and over again. When you notice that your mind has wandered and you’re caught up in thought (not because you have “failed,” but because you are human, not the enlightened Buddha), you bring your attention back to the breath. You continue this process for as long as you choose.
And at no point in this process do you judge yourself – there are no wrong thoughts. That’s part of the lesson here: you are NOT your thoughts. You are the awareness that hears the thoughts and decides whether to listen. (This might be hard to conceptualize right now, but if that’s the case, don’t worry. It’s something that you learn through experience.)
How to Start
When you are first starting out, I recommend doing no more than 10 minutes at a time – and it may be best to start with just 5 minutes or so. You don’t want it to feel too daunting, because that’s when you start making excuses for why you can’t sit down and do it. You want to try and make it a daily practice, so choose an amount of time that you are able to commit to doing every single day.
*Do not try to increase the amount of time you do until you have done at least 2-3 weeks straight of meditating every single day*. You want to build a lasting habit here. You have the rest of your life to try and do more time. Just be patient and ease into it.
Also, the time of day doesn’t matter as much as making it consistent. I recommend choosing a time and sticking to it (to the best of your ability) every day. Whether it’s right when you wake up, on your lunch break, when you get home from work, or before you go to bed, pick a time that you can consistently repeat each day.
I’m not a fan of the idea that you shouldn’t move during meditation if you are uncomfortable, as is the idea in some disciplines. I believe that having good posture is important (so sit up with a straight spine), but my recommendation is to find a way to sit that is comfortable for you, and feel free to adjust yourself as needed.
It might be helpful to start with an app like Headspace or Insight Timer. (I used Headspace when I was first getting started.) These apps help you to stay accountable, offer some guidance for learning how to settle into a breathing pattern, and provide reminders to check in and see if your mind has wandered, which it most likely has.
If, like me, you also like to know some background information, science, and stories to give something context before you experience it, then I recommend the book Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. This is the book that I read when I was first dipping my toes into meditation, and it really helped to set the stage and get me curious and excited to give it a try.
Styles and Methods
There are lots of different styles of meditation that you can practice, and all sorts of techniques and methods that can be applied within them.
To try and list and accurately describe all of them would be quite an exhaustive endeavor, so I will simply share the ones that I have used.
Mindfulness meditation – This is basically what I described earlier. It’s the foundation for my meditation practice. You sit, you pay attention to the breath, and when the mind wanders, you come back to the breath. You are practicing the ability to feel your separation from your thoughts (aka be the conscious awareness of them) and observe without reacting. It’s very simple, but it’s not easy.
Zen/zazen meditation – Zazen is very similar to mindfulness meditation – there’s just more intention present, I think. In my opinion, it’s kind of the next step that naturally comes as you go deeper into mindfulness meditation. One technique that usually is used in this style is to count the breaths as you go, going from 1-10 and then starting back at one. This helps you to stay focused, and/or to notice more quickly when your mind is no longer focused on feeling and counting the breaths. The goal is the “study of self,” and as you go deeper in to meditation, you stop counting and simply hold awareness. You are to watch where your mind goes and allow it to run its course and then let go, practicing non-attachment. The lesson is that when you move out of the mind, you connect with who you truly are underneath all of that brain chatter.
Vipassana (insight) meditation – Again, pretty similar to the two above disciplines, a little different in intention. It’s believed to be the form of meditation practiced by the Buddha himself. You are still sitting, focusing at first on the breath and then eventually moving into awareness of the full body’s sensations. It is said to bring self-transformation through self-observation. You focus on the connection between mind and body, and recognize the ways in which you can either cause your own suffering or free yourself from suffering by remaining unattached and in a state of balance.
Loving-kindness (metta) meditation – In this style of meditation, you are cultivating unconditional love. You are practicing loving yourself and others without any restrictions or expectations. You are connecting to the notion that there is nothing that anyone must do in order to “deserve” love. To do a metta meditation, you start with yourself and then gradually extend a prayer or intention (for example, “May I be free. May I feel joy. May I be healthy. Etc…) outward to friends and family members, acquaintances, strangers, and eventually all living beings. Probably not surprisingly, I really like this one :)
Guided meditations – I don’t have too much experience with guided meditations or visualization meditations. I have done a few here and there in group settings or with apps or podcasts, but so far I’ve found that the majority of the time I most benefit from practicing in silence and focusing on the breath and getting out of the head and into the body. That’s just my personal experience/preference at the moment though. It’s certainly worth exploring for yourself if you are interested.
Body scan – A body scan is a practice that can be added to any type of meditation. Essentially, you are bringing your attention to your body and focusing on specific points one at a time. Most often, you start at one end of the body (top of the head, or toes) and work your way to the other end. As you go, you notice–without judgement! –how you feel in each area. Are you relaxed? Is there any tension, aches, or pain? As you are doing this, the goal is not to try and diagnose anything or figure out why it feels a certain way. You are simply bringing your awareness to it. You are practicing the art of being connected to your body’s physical sensations. If you start analyzing, you are moving out of your body and into your head, and that’s against the point. You can analyze it later when you’re done.
Mantras – A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated over and over again in meditation. These can be helpful as you are starting because they give your brain something to focus on (similar to the counting technique sometimes used in Zazen meditation). If you are using a mantra, you want it to be something meaningful to you. Some use traditional Sanskrit phrases, but other use modern words and phrases that hold significance for them. They can be helpful in embedding a message into your consciousness or giving direction to your practice. I don’t use mantras in my practice most of the time, but there are definitely some days where I do.
Box breathing – Box breathing is a breathwork technique in which you breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath with lungs full of air for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and then hold there for 4 counts, then once again breathing in for 4 counts (and so on, in a cyclic manner). This breathing method is really helpful in calming the body down. I use it in circumstances when I am feeling particularly anxious, and have found it to be effective for me.
Moving meditation – I want to note that there are a number of ways to do a “moving” meditation, whether that be yoga, a nature walk, or simply bringing mindfulness to everyday activities such as washing the dishes or cooking a meal. I believe that these activities hold a lot of benefit, but they do not replace a sitting meditation. There is something particularly powerful about challenging yourself to sit and focus within.
Okay, I think that about wraps up everything I wanted to pass along to you, based on what I have learned in my experience so far.
Meditation has aided my healing journey in big ways. Learning that I am not my thoughts; learning to use the breath to ground, calm, and center myself; and recognizing the power that I hold in choosing where to focus my attention have all served me to a profound degree.
I hope that this has helped to give you some insight into how simple it can be, and takes the pressure off of needing to start big or become a guru in your first sitting.
As always, let me know if you have any questions!